Photo by Il Primo Uomo on Flickr.

Residents in many neighborhoods often say they wish their neighborhood had a Trader Joe’s or other new retail options. There’s only one real way to get such businesses to move in: Add more residents who can shop there.

Lydia DePillis writes about some recent zoning fights. Along Georgia Avenue, ANC 4B fought a proposal to build 400 apartments and retail at the Curtis Chevrolet site, now slated for a Wal-Mart.

The 4B resolution stated, “Our Community is homeowner-based and family oriented, we want to maintain the character and integrity of our community,” and “With the addition of over 1000 more residents in a compact area the likelihood of crime and violence increases dramatically.” Lydia says the neighbors wanted a Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and a movie theater for the site.

Many neighborhoods talk about how they want a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, or in many cases even any grocery store. But then, at the same time, they oppose new housing in the neighborhood because of fears of traffic (or crime, which makes absolutely no sense since more people being around reduces crime).

The Trader Joe’s moved in to the West End while the West End was dramatically developing. Whole blocks of formerly light industrial uses were turned into fairly high density residential buildings (high density for DC, not for most other cities). In Logan Circle, the Whole Foods moved in knowing that substantial development was planned or already underway in the immediate vicinity.

In Cleveland Park, there are constant debates about the health of the commercial strip and the overlays that limit restaurants in an effort to attract more non-food establishments. But the real reason there aren’t more non-food establishments is that there aren’t enough people. If the long-ago proposal had gone forward to turn the Park and Shop strip mall into some tasteful larger buildings, similar in size to others on Connecticut Avenue, instead of landmarking the thing, Cleveland Park could have more of what it wants.

It’s simple. Unless your neighborhood is in the process of growing rapidly, it’s unlikely to get more retailers and probably not the kind you want. Most of the time, the retail market is close to an equilibrium where the number of retailers matches the demand for retail in that area. Only when a neighborhood is gaining population is the time ripe to add more.

Once upon a time, the commercial corridors thrived without this added housing, except for two factors. First, family sizes were substantially larger, and a typical single-family house might have parents, 3-4 kids and even some relatives living there. Now, family sizes are smaller, but many neighbors also fight proposals to allow basement or garage apartments, even though those would simply restore the numbers of people that the house used to hold.

Second, people shop more online and more in suburban big box centers. That’s not going to change. Bringing big box retail into DC, as these Wal-Marts do, might keep more of the tax dollars from big box shopping in DC, but won’t create healthy neighborhood shopping corridors.

Neighborhoods can either stay the same size, and see local retail gradually decline as online shopping grows and DC adds big box stores. Or, they can add enough new residents to support new retail options. Most of us prefer the latter. Some people, though, want to stop new residents but also have the retail. That’s completely unrealistic.

Lydia also reports that the last act of the lame-duck ANC 5C, which includes Bloomingdale, was to oppose Big Bear Cafe’s request to change its zoning to commercial. Since several new, more retail-friendly commissioners are joining in the new year, there’s a good chance they will quickly reverse course, and even so, the Zoning Commission is unlikely to heed this last gasp stance against change.

David Alpert created Greater Greater Washington in 2008 and was its executive director until 2020. He formerly worked in tech and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco Bay, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.